A group of women gathered in a sunlit room. They came armed in headscarves and pink sweatshirts. There were seven of them, some attached to tubes and machines. They smiled when each met a man they may have only seen on their television screens.
Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr had come to visit, himself equipped with care packages, new wigs and extra weight on his heart as he faced a room of breast cancer patients.
Carr's mother, Kathy, lost her battle with the disease in 2014. Since then, he hadn't visited fighters like her until the MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore that October day.
"I always wanted to do something with it, but…" Carr paused. "I may look strong on the outside, but that…" He stopped for a second time.
"My mom passed. It's been affecting me for a long time, and I couldn't deal with it."
But when he entered that room, he made his way to each woman, sometimes claiming a short swivel stool on rollers like the one a doctor might use. He took pictures. He signed pink sweatshirts. They opened the care packages.
One patient donned her new wig. "What's your name, girl?" he joked, giving her a hug. "I like it. I like it. It looks good."
"That's how my auntie would look at me!" he exclaimed when another patient lowered her glasses down the bridge of her nose, shooting him a stern glance. Carr erupted into laughter and imitated her.
When Carr was in the room, he was transported back to Flint, Mich., his hometown, with his mother and two aunts. It was familiar. Time spent with these women helped him remember who he is and who he was raised to be.
Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to provide a full day of support to patients undergoing treatment.
Take the labels off people.
Carr is the Ravens' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee this year. The winner of the prestigious award will be announced Saturday night at NFL Honors on the eve of Super Bowl LIII. Carr is an ideal candidate, but he won't be the one to tell you that.
Known as the "Iron Horse," thanks to his durabilty, Carr has experienced much success on the football field. Teammates, coaches and opponents laud his work ethic and commitment. He has never missed a start in 11 seasons (176 straight games), which is the longest streak by an active defensive player.
He runs individual drills on the sideline. He meditates amidst blaring locker room music. He offers expertise to his younger teammates. Carr has accumulated years of experience and skill under his saddle, and much of it came off the field.
His roster of mentors and confidants resembles the guest list at a Hall of Fame induction: former tight end Tony Gonzalez, former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh, former tight end Jason Witten, former guard Brian Waters and Hall of Fame cornerback and Chiefs Defensive Backs Coach Emmitt Thomas, to name a few. But, his commitment to growth isn't merely fueled by his mentors.
"I take labels off of people," Carr explained. "If you have some knowledge, some wisdom that I can use, I need that."
Focusing on life off the field while still devoting time and effort to his craft was an effort to achieve balance, one of the lessons he heard time and time again over his career.
"You have to find balance in this game as you grow older," Carr explained. "Certain things start to pull at you and may take you off-focus from this game, which they should."
That's a seemingly unusual attitude to have about a game that consumes much of Carr's life.
Certain things start to pull at you … which they should.
These "certain things" that pull at Carr range from family – his wife, Shatory, and two kids, Sidney and Austin, who still reside in Texas – to friends, but also to whatever community he is living in. A connection with those in his city is a prerequisite for running in his circle.
"All my friends, we're not really friends until we actually work in a community together – like do some good work for people," Carr explained.
The most important part of this work is having real interactions with the people he wants to help, which sometimes means meeting them in times of both material need and emotional need.
Through his Carr Cares Foundation and the team, Carr has seized the opportunity to see how his community lives and works. He hosted the Ravens' annual Holiday Helpers event in December, which gathers players and team personnel to take a group of local underserved children shopping before the holiday season. In November, the Carr Cares Foundation announced a partnership with EVERFI, Inc., to provide schools in Flint, Mich., Dallas and Baltimore with a digital program promoting health and wellness for elementary school students. The list of his involvement goes on.
Carr also served on the Ravens' player leadership committee that met with law enforcement, politicians and other community members to shape the organization's social justice efforts and organize player fundraising. In December, this commission announced a partnership with nine Baltimore organizations supporting education, youth mentorship and law enforcement, among other causes.
Through all this involvement, what makes Carr stand out is his connection with those he aims to help. It's a partnership. He wants just as much to share a laugh and a story as to provide a truckload of Christmas presents for a family in need or a wig for a breast cancer patient.
In addition to that laugh and story, sometimes he wants to share more, like a piece of his upbringing. In 2015, he returned home to Flint to dedicate three reading centers for children, partnering with the United Way and many of the teachers from the school where his mother, Kathy, served as a teacher.
"That was big, because I was able to put her stamp on something, continue her legacy," Carr remembered.
There was a sense of familiarity for him in those reading centers and in the school where his mother once taught, and it's not merely due to Kathy's legacy. It's also thanks to the little feet that hop through the door every morning.
"I love being around kids," Carr smiled. "Every time I go into schools, I'm like, 'Man, this feels like the same feeling I get when I walk in this locker room, like I'm supposed to be here.'"
Like I'm supposed to be here.
The "Iron Horse" won't be done running once he hangs up the cleats. His plans for the future are a natural continuation of his pursuit of genuine partnership. They're just geared toward an unorthodox position: JV and freshman football coach.
"People look at me like I'm crazy," Carr said.
Carr doesn't have any "pride issues" with focusing on a JV team because he wants to be able to shape the next generation of players – and, more importantly, the next generation of people.
"A lot of people don't want to touch that age, but it's a very important age," he explained. "You're going to fall into that slot of who you are as an adult."
The way he aims to guide his future players is the same way he tries to interact with each member of the community: by meeting them where they are. For these kids, he says, it's a "make-or-break" period to form who they are as adults, and Carr wants to be part of it.
"I'm going to be professional and be an adult about it, but at the same time, I'm going to say, 'Take the label off,'" Carr forecasted. "'I'm going to be your coach and all, but if you need me to be your brother right now, we're going to talk.'"
It makes sense that a man who emphasizes personal interactions in his philanthropic work would want to continue creating space for them after he leaves his playing days behind. These conversations aren't always easy, but as he has experienced with breast cancer patients, sometimes the seemingly difficult interactions are the most meaningful.
In the midst of taking photos, laughing with the breast cancer fighters and signing the pink sweatshirts, Carr found himself seated next to the same woman who reminded him of his aunt. She began to sing words reminiscent of another cancer fighter, Jim Valvano, and his famous speech at the 1993 ESPYs.
"You have to keep the faith, and never give up. Don't ever give up."
Breast cancer was a disease Carr was anxious to face. It was a time when he wasn't completely healed from grief. It was a situation for which, perhaps, he wasn't completely ready. But in that hospital room, he found familiarity, just as he'd found in in the classroom, in the locker room and in the hearts of those around him.
Carr has earned the Ravens' Man of the Year distinction, but it wasn't a motive for his work. Rather, his drive was found in those personal situations, because the people in those moments weren't just an important piece of his experience. Connection with them was everything, and that was all the reason he needed.